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January 2002; Volume 20, Number 1

Hijacking is Theft

by Jeffrey Tucker

In the post-attack world, in which politicians attempt to impose the national security state at home and wage war abroad, a simple point has been obscured: it all started with a multiple hijacking. The theft of the planes was made possible not with grenades or heavy explosives but with box cutters––the most dangerous weapon on board. If the hijackers had been stopped or even deterred by armed pilots, the twin towers would still be standing, and there would be no war or government power grabs (at least not more than the usual).

After September 11, the Bush administration announced its support for "sky marshals" on commercial aircraft, with the hope that an armed federal agent on board will deter future hijackings. They were quickly put on flights going to and from Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, the airport of choice for politicians and federal employees, but have been sparsely employed at other airports.

However, the administration consistently opposed the easiest route of simply permitting the airlines to arm themselves and thereby take responsibility for their own security. Once again, we are back to trusting the government to protect us, even at a time when property owners are begging for the right to provide their own protection. (A bill to allow pilots to be armed is still being debated in Congress.)

Before the attack, it was not generally known to the public that the crew members of commercial jets were completely unarmed and thus vulnerable to the most malicious person on board. These planes are loaded with people who are complete strangers to the owners and managers of the airline. It should have been obvious that if the wrong person should gain control of the plane, the airplane could be used as a weapon of war. If guns to deter malice are not necessary on commercial airlines, they are not necessary anywhere.

Technological advances have made available frangible bullets that injure and even kill but do not harm the plane itself. Even a stun gun, which has also been forbidden, would have done these terrorists in before they had the chance to take total control of the aircraft and turn it into an instrument of mass death. Security is clearly a good that passengers want to purchase, and surely air carriers want to protect their property and customers.

Why are pilots still unarmed? Because Title 14, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 108.11 only allows armed planes with the approval of the FAA. The FAA doesn’t approve, and, in fact, hasn’t approved any guns on planes since Nixon’s "sky marshal" program was ended in 1973. As Jane Garvey, the FAA administrator, told the New York Times (September 25, 2001), guns on planes is an idea that "two weeks ago I would not even have considered."

What an admission! So much for entrusting the federal government with our security. We can’t change the past, but surely, the regulation should be repealed now. As David Kopel of the Independence Institute notes, this "is the only reform—unlike the panoply of freedom-restricting measures currently being promoted by the Department of Transportation—that actually would have foiled the September 11 acts of war."

As Brad Rohdenburg, American Airlines captain from Meredith, New Hampshire, wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal (September 21, 2001): "How utterly absurd that thousands can be murdered with box cutters. The airport security procedures mandated since Sept. 11 wouldn’t have prevented it, and won’t deter it from happening again. They don’t do much but inconvenience passengers and increase costs. . . . I’m told by my airline’s flight office that the FAA feels pilots shouldn’t have weapons because ‘they might be taken away and used.’ Well, what if our airplanes are taken away and used? . . . We need a last line of defense to keep hijackers out of the cockpit. Federal agents from even the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, and the Smithsonian Institution are allowed to carry guns on commercial airlines. Why not the pilots who are responsible for the aircraft? Many of us already have better firearms training than that provided to those agencies—and we’re willing to get more at our own expense."

Who could disagree? It turns out that the FAA does, and doggedly. In taking this position, the FAA and the Bush administration are even rejecting the pleas of the Air Line Pilots Association (67,000 members), which has overwhelmingly favored allowing pilots to be armed.

Imagine if there were a federal bureau in charge of securing convenience stores, and part of its "security plan" involved disarming all cashiers, and doing so against the pleas of the potential victims behind the registers and their customers. After an inevitable disaster, would it be any great comfort that the same bureau later promised that the government itself would now start using deadly force, in selected stores?

At issue here is the right to protect private property from invasion. After all, hijacking is just the name we give to a crime that involves seizing control of private property (the airplane) when it is flying in the air and likely to be carrying hundreds of paying customers. The key to having prevented this crime of theft—which in this case led to mass murder—is better protection of property against invasion. In short, this case makes the libertarian point that peace is best preserved through strict application of the rules concerning private property.

Protecting planes from being seized from their owners is akin to the desire of the gas stations, jewelry stores, and industrial plants not to be robbed. In a free market, they do this through providing their own protection or hiring protection services. These services include alarms, fences, and, as a last resort, deadly force, which usually means a sidearm. The mere prospect of deadly force works as a deterrent to crime and a means to limit the damage of crimes.

The failure to distinguish between armed hijackers and armed pilots appears to be the central problem that afflicted all "experts" before September 11. They are against guns on planes, regardless of who carries them. In other words, the situation is not unlike the case of gun control in general: hoping to eliminate violence, the gun banners have only sent a signal to the most violent people that they are free to take charge. Without arms on board, every plane might as well be stamped with a "hijack me" sign.

Think of all three places where the federal regulations have imposed a universal ban on guns: post offices, public schools, and airlines. It is because of this ban that we know what "going postal" means, that we know what happened at Columbine, and that we will never forget the horror of September 11. The answer here is no different from the usual libertarian prescription for ensuring peace: Let property owners protect themselves and those they serve.

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Jeffrey Tucker is vice president of the Mises Institute and editor of The Free Market ( He would like to thank David Kopel for providing helpful comments on this piece.


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